Mr. President: Marriage is not a solution to poverty

March 10, 2002|By Susan Reimer

The 1996 welfare reform legislation is up for renewal this year, and the Bush administration is rewriting it to promote marriage among the poor.

The administration's plan would include $200 million in federal money, matched by $100 million from the states, to fund innovative programs that promote marriage as an antidote to child poverty and a host of other social ills.

Among the president's suggestions are an educational campaign on the importance of marriage and counseling for those approaching marriage.

Once again, the president and the Republican Party are taking a fact upon which many of the best minds and the most generous hearts agree -- that it is healthier for children to grow in economic stability with their biological parents -- and cloaking it in ideology so polarizing that there might never be agreement.

When introducing his plan to promote marriage, the president gave a tip of the hat to the "heroic" work of single mothers but added that "two-parent families should always be our goal."

He talked of how "children's lives would be better if their fathers had lived up to their responsibilities."

When Democrats say that, they usually mean pay the child support and stay involved with the kids. Apparently, when Republicans say that, they mean marry the mother.

It is demoralizing to learn, once again, how cynical Republicans can be.

I too believe that marriage can be the best institution in which to raise children. But to suggest to a woman -- and it is almost always the woman raising the kids -- that marriage is the best route to economic stability is a throwback to an age of ideas we abandoned long ago.

Instead of encouraging marriage more aggressively among teen-agers and low- income couples -- an idea as fraught with trouble as promoting religion as an answer to poverty -- the Bush administration might rather have given thought to removing the obstacles to economically stable households headed by the biological parents.

Both the tax laws and the welfare laws in this country are pockmarked with financial roadblocks to marriage. Under the old welfare system, a woman might receive $15,000 in benefits if she was a single parent -- none if she was married. Even the welfare reform of 1996 did not remove all the disincentives for two adults in the same household to work full-time.

Instead of fine-tuning state and federal laws to remove these penalties, the administration takes the much more divisive approach of preaching marriage. Rather than take the time and trouble to clean up the loopholes, the president takes to the bully pulpit to suggest that the poor are poor because they have abandoned the sanctified state of matrimony.

The problem isn't that the parents aren't married. The problem is that the parents are too young to be good parents or too poor to be good parents.

The answer is not to urge them to get married. The answer is to make sure that if they do get married, the stresses of poverty will not drive them apart.

That means education, training, decent jobs, transportation, decent housing in decent school districts and, above all, plenty of affordable care for their children while they work -- and an end to the niggling financial penalties levied on those who are married.

What the president does not understand is this: These families might stay together and flourish if they weren't poor.

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